The Hollow Half – Chapter 18

We all have our own secrets, the little details of our inner lives that no one else can see. Exposing those can be terrifying. Often it takes planning and courage and picking just the right audience. Or you can wander up to the first random superhero you see and blurt out something cryptic. Cause that’s sure to work great.

“What?” Heartbeat asked, more shocked at my offer to help than I would have expected.

“I’m sorry, I’m new to this, but I can see things. I know exactly where everyone who’s trapped is and I can see the paths to get to them. It’s part of the powers I got tonight.” I explained. I had a hard time believing I was saying those things, and, from the looks on their faces, Heartbeat and Fire Chief Stackhaus were having trouble believing it too. Maybe if I had a costume or a mask I would have been more believable?

“Look, I appreciate the offer, but even if you have powers, you’re untrained and unlicensed so you could be more dangerous to us than the fire.” Stackhaus said.

“There are thirteen people still in the building, plus three dead. If you don’t let me help you’re not going to get any of them out of their alive. If Heartbeat and I work together we can save all of them before the building collapses in twenty minutes.” I told him.

“You’re a precog?” Heartbeat asked.

“No. I can just see things. Twenty minutes is a guess, but it’s based on the building having a layer of Durasteel sheeting that the technomagic wards were embossed onto inside the inner walls.” I said, allowing meta-awareness to fill in the details as I spoke.

“Your father work for the police? Is that how you know about the building?” Stackhaus asked looking more skeptical.

“No!” I ground my teeth in frustration. I understood why Stackhaus was being an obstruction. He saw me as a crazy star struck teenager who was hungry to do “something cool” with a famous heroine like Heartbeat. He resented her, a little, for getting the kind of good publicity that the media often doesn’t bother with for firefighters. He’d worked for thirty years through some really bad situations but people just expected it of him because that’s what firefighters do.

Where his resentment of Heartbeat was mild though, his resentment of me was much sharper. I was an unknown and unknowns at a fire scene cost lives. It was as simple as that. He didn’t trust me and what he didn’t trust he assumed would get him killed. That attitude was why he’d survived thirty years of bad situations.

So I had to show him what I could do.

“Chief, you don’t have to take my word for this. There someone…Officer Dan Khale…who’s trapped in the room adjacent to the main entryway. Your crews have to clear the entryway anyways and Heartbeat can easily extract him. He’s not badly hurt, just knocked out and buried under some ceiling tiles.”

“Dan’s in there?” Stackhaus stammered. Dan had been the best man at his second wedding.

“I don’t care if J… if she’s untrained. We can’t let a dozen cops burn up. I’m going in there.” Heartbeat said and turned to leave.

Heartbeat was a biomancer. Most people thought of that as meaning a blood controller. Kind of an icky power, but Heartbeat knew ways to use it that made it seem almost pleasant. When she fought someone for instance, they just went peacefully to sleep with a smile on their face and were easily roused later. No brutal fisticuffs or shattered bodies.

The other application of her power that she tended to show off was the way it allowed her to command her own body to greater physical capabilities than it should have possessed.

Super strength, super dexterity and super quickness weren’t uncommon abilities by any stretch of the imagination but Heartbeat’s variety had such a natural fluidity that it was hard not to be impressed with her sheer grace.

She didn’t stroll or run into the building therefore, she glided. A single long leap, like her body was as light as a feather, carried her through the shattered remains of the bulletproof door that had been cracked earlier.

Her costume was a white leotard with red armored sections on the torso, arms, and legs. That helped her stand out against the flames for a moment but after that I lost sight of her in the thick smoke that was billowing out the door.

“She should have waited for you to hose down that section. She’s going to get a lungful of smoke.” I said.

Stackhaus just glared at me silently, torn between hoping that I was legitimate and worried that I wasn’t and he was going to lose the city’s only official super heroine because of it.

“Do you have oxygen? She’ll need it when she gets out and Officer Khale will too.” I asked.

That was something he had no problem believing. He turned to collect the oxygen tanks from the paramedic wagon we were standing near leaving me alone for a moment. I sagged slightly in relief. I didn’t have the full trust of either Stackhaus or Heartbeat yet, but there were so many worse ways things could have gone.

“She was right!”, Heartbeat yelled as she emerged from the building carrying Officer Khale. She choked and coughed a few times, but her power was already counteracting the effect of the smoke inhalation she’d suffered.

Stackhaus had oxygen waiting for both Heartbeat and Officer Khale by the time she touched down near us. Heartbeat laid the unconscious police officer down on a waiting stretcher and let Stackhaus check him out while she used the oxygen he’d collected to speed the purging of her lungs.

“Where are the others?” Heartbeat asked as she got her breath fully back.

“All on the ground floor.”, I said, “If we’re going to get them in time, we’ll need to go in together though. I can’t describe the places one by one fast enough.”

“Are you fireproof?” Heartbeat asked.

“No and I’ll need to take some breathing gear too.” I said.

“No time for that, I’ve got you covered.” she laid a hand on my lips and I felt my body change under her touch. It wasn’t painful but it was really freaky to be shapeshifted like that. She’d adapted both our lungs to handle toxic gases and had morphed my skin into a heat resistant shell. Maintaining the shapeshift took energy and concentration that she had in only limited quantities which was why she hadn’t bothered doing it for herself on her first trip in. It was easier for her to heal up afterwards than prevent injuries in most cases.

“This is still my scene. I’m not authorizing you two to go in there alone.” Stackhaus said as he hefted his gear and checked his breathing apparatus. Technically, he did outrank Heartbeat in the present circumstances and she was required to follow his orders. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing for him to put to the test though.

“We’re going to lose people if we wait.” she said.

“We’re not waiting. I’m going in with you. We don’t work this sort of situation without a partner, and taking a rookie with you doesn’t count as having a viable backup.” Stackhaus explained. His gear was in place so he started marching into the building without waiting for us.

With the way the fire and smoke was pouring out of the building I wasn’t opposed to having someone who knew what they were doing along. Meta-awareness told me a lot of things but I’d already seen how it didn’t always fill in all the blanks I needed to know about.

“We’ll cover more ground if we split up.” Heartbeat suggested as we entered the lobby of the police station. The fire was mostly on the upper floor which meant the ground floor was still survivable. That didn’t mean it was pleasant though. The heat from the flames above had turned the first floor into an oven. There was a steady breeze that was fanning the flames above us to greater heights and making the firefighting efforts more difficult. On the positive side though it was also carrying off a decent portion of the dangerous gases that the fire was producing.

“We can’t afford to be separated. Stick together. You and I can take them out two at a time if the victims are close enough to each other.” Stackhaus directed Heartbeat. He wasn’t wrong to count me out of that equation. Heartbeat could haul a grown man (or two) due to her superhuman strength. I didn’t have that particular advantage.

I considered trying to pull the trapped police out through the Dreamlit world but, with effort that I’d had to exert to carry myself across the barrier, I knew that  was more than I could manage. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to carry myself across a second time without tearing open a rift between the physical world and the Dreamlit one. Trying to carry someone else over was just too dangerous till I had a chance to rest.

“There’s two in the interrogation room over there, third door on the right.” I said, gesturing down the smoke filled hall to our left. It was the same hallway I’d fled down in the Dreamlit world to escape Way’s beast. Without my meta-awareness I wouldn’t have recognized it. The fire and smoke made it look like something out of a movie.

Chief Stackhaus let Heartbeat take the lead. Even with the shapeshifting she’d given me and his protective gear she was still the most resilient of the three of us.

“Be careful of the door. The frame is cracked. We need to brace it or the roof will come down  when we open it.” I said.

“There’s a floor joist just above your head Heartbeat. See if its loose.” Stackhaus instructed. He still mistrusted me on principal but in practice as long as I was getting results and people were being rescued he’d be able to work with me.

I watched in both the real world and the Dreamlit world as Heartbeat buttressed the door frame. In the real world it was a simple construction task of arranging some additional supports. In the Dreamlit world, the doorframe was transformed.

The broken frame had been leering at us like a gargoyle ready to snap its mouth shut the moment we opened the door. As Heartbeat worked on it though it changed and became a solid, armored arch with knights reaching up the sides to keep us from harm.

The iconography should have been soothing but the knight imagery brought a question to my mind that made my blood run cold.

Where was the Oblivion Knight?

He’d been the one who destroyed this place in his giant form. He’d only stopped because I’d lured him away. As far as I could see, he was more than capable of coming back to finish the job. But he hadn’t. Was it because he’d changed his mind or because he couldn’t come back though?

I was pretty sure the Oblivion Knight wasn’t the kind of guy who would have a change of heart. From what I knew of him, he was the sort to have his picture beside both “monomanical” and  “megalomanical” in the dictionary. If he’d changed his mind it was because he’d changed his plans, which meant he had a new and more horrible scheme than erasing his enemies with black fire.

The other possibility, that he couldn’t come back, seemed even less likely. Unless he’d been changed in some fundamental way when he destroyed the Shadow Court’s realm? I could imagine that, but I couldn’t guess how likely it was to be true.

I needed Way. She might be able to at least make a guess what he was up to.

“I found them!”, Heartbeat yelled. I was so lost in thought that I thought Heartbeat was referring to Way and my other companions from the Shadow Court’s realm. Then I saw that she was moving a section of ceiling that had fallen and was sheltering the two downed police officers we’d been searching for. That snapped me back to the present.

While Heartbeat and Chief Stackhaus carried the fallen officers out of the building, I projected myself into the Dreamlit world again. I copied over the shapeshift that Heartbeat had given my physical body (mostly so I could see what it looked like) and noticed that she’d done me another favor as well; I looked nothing like myself thanks to the modifications she’d made. Heartbeat and Chief Stackhaus would know what I really looked like but anyone else would think I was some kind of humanoid lizard.

The fire was enough scary motivation that I was able to zombie shuffle after the two of them in the physical world as we worked our way out of the building. In the Dreamlit world I followed up on what meta-awareness was telling me and searched out the remaining victims.

That’s how I noticed the fire getting closer to the fuel tanks for the buildings backup generators.

“We’ve got trouble.” I told Heartbeat and the Fire Chief as I reintegrated. “The wall around the room for the backup generator split and the fire suppression system cracked with it. The coolant drained into the basement.”

Stackhaus understood what that meant immediately.

“Has the fire entered the fuel room yet?”

“No” I answered.

“What’s the temperature in there?”

“I don’t know exactly. About as hot as the room we found these two in.” I said, indicating the police officers they were transferring to stretchers.

“Let me go solo” Heartbeat suggested “I can move a lot faster. I can get them all out in time.”

“Did you see that the door frame was weak?” Stackhaus asked her.

“No, but I could have braced it when it started to fall.”

“Would have been too late. The whole roof would have come down. You don’t take shortcuts, not like that anyways.”, he explained and then tapped his helmet to activate the comm unit there for secure band broadcast, “I need team 2 and team 3 on the south side of the building now. The generator’s heating up, keep it cool boys. Team 4, you’re with me now, lock in environmental gear, we have some people to get out of there.”

And just like that the fire teams moved into action. With eleven people left to rescue and four rescuers to get them out we beat the twenty minute deadline easily. Standing in a burning building, directing traffic should have been either terrifying or exciting but instead I just felt calm. I wasn’t safe but I had people who I could depend on and who were depending on me.

Afterwards, actually as soon as we had the last person out of the building, Heartbeat took my arm and turned to Chief Stackhaus.

“I need to get her debriefed, can you guys handle the rest here?” she asked Stackhaus.

“Assuming she’s right and there’s no one else in there, yeah.” he replied.

“Good. I’ll have someone call tomorrow in case there’s any paperwork you need me to fill out.” Heartbeat said and then rose into the air, carrying me with her. She wasn’t lifting me by the arm, though she kept her grip on me. She was floating me by directly manipulating the blood in my body. Again, kinda creepy but in practice it felt very gentle.

We settled down on a rooftop a few blocks away and I raised an eyebrow. This was not exactly an official FBMA debriefing room.

“Thank you for back there!” she said and she released the shapeshifting effect she’d placed on me.

“You and the Chief did all the real work.” I replied, thinking of how little I could have managed there on my own.

“Pfff, he never would have let me in there without you.”

“He was worried about you.”

“Yeah, cause I’m still young. So I’ve got to be a sidekick, no matter how good I am with my powers.”

“It was helpful having him there though right?”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyways that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh?”

“You’re a new superhero you said right? I mean you said you just got your clairvoyance or whatever it is.”

“Yeah.” I admitted.

“Ok. In theory then I’m supposed to bring you into my handler at the Bureau. But that’s if you want to go.”

“And if I don’t?” I asked.

“Then you’re free to go. I’m supposed to drop you off wherever you like (within reason, no trips to Hawai). And you don’t have to answer any questions, my handler’s really insistent that we not drive anyone away. ‘Super heroes are such shy types’.” she said finishing in a voice that sounded exactly like Agent Haffrun. Super mimickry by way of manipulating her own voice box. She really did have a lot of clever tricks worked out.

“Sounds like your handler is fairly easy going.” I offered.

“Yeah, she’s pretty cool. I think her idea is the Bureau offers such a nice package that there’s no reason to go for the strong arm approach like they did in the past.”

“That makes sense. I…I might need time to think it over though.”

“That’s fine. There’s a special number I can give you and I can get in touch with you later too if you like. To answer anymore questions.”

“I think I’d like to do that.” I said remembering that I still had one giant, unanswered question to resolve about Agent Haffrun. The whole “was she really an alien” thing.

“That’s ok.” Heartbeat said. She sounded happy with my decision but she looked a little disappointed. “Would you…could I ask you a question though?”

“I guess, sure.”

“You said your power is that you know things? How does that work? What kind of things do you know?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like I’m reading a script of what’s happening and getting the stage directions and stuff. The actors can ad lib or do whatever they want but as long as things go the way they’re supposed to I have this extra awareness of what’s going on.”

“Wow! And you just got that tonight? How?”

I was worried about telling her that Pen gave me that power but then I remembered his protesting that it hadn’t been him.

“I don’t know. I’m still working on that too. For having a power that let’s me know things, I’m still really in the dark.” I said. Heartbeat smiled at the inherent irony of the statement.

“Ok. I shouldn’t push too much. So, where should I drop you off?”

I thought about asking her to take me home, and then kicked myself before the words got out. She’d seen what I looked like but that didn’t mean she had any idea who I was. No point giving up that part of my secret identity if I didn’t have to. Also James was still heading back to pick me up. He’d freak if he found the building collapsed and me nowhere around.

“I need to wait for someone at the parking lot, I guess where all the people are gathered? Could you put me down somewhere they wouldn’t see me and I can walk over there?”

“No problem.” she said and floated me down to the ground.

“Here’s a card with my number. Give me a call ok.”, she said before flying away. She was headed back to Agent Haffrun to report in. They had a lot to talk about with all that had happened tonight but I knew I’d be topic number one up for discussion.

Alone once again, I walked the short distance to the tiny crowd that was gathering around the burning police station. James wasn’t there yet, which was a relief, so I spent the time just watching what was going on like everyone else.

The news crews had arrived, what few that hadn’t been covering the fires in the abandoned buildings in the South End. The others would be arriving soon as well, a police station was more interesting than an old factory, but until then it was the second string teams that got the spotlight and the less enviable job of reporting on a situation where they had almost no solid information.

I almost wanted to step forward and fill them in on what had really been happening but thankfully my subconscious didn’t make that decision for me.

As it became clear that whatever had attacked the police station wasn’t continuing to destroy anything, the size of the crowd began to swell. Desperate for news, the reporters began to work out plausible sounding theories to talk about since the facts weren’t instantly forthcoming.

Someone reported on the hero task force that had been organized after a tip came in about a Shadow Court abduction. Another reporter ran with that and presumed that this must be a pre-emptive strike to ward off the task force. When a third reporter learned that the hero task force was reporting success on their objective already, the story changed to the police station being burned as a retaliatory strike. Then someone leaked a report that the Shadow Court had all been killed in the raid and no one knew what to make of things.

By the time James finally showed up, I’d spent far too much time listening to far too many different wild theories. I’d been involved in a lot of what had happened, I had my meta-awareness feeding me incredible amounts of information and I still couldn’t keep the crazy ideas they were coming up with straight.

“Jin! What happened! You’re alright! You’re alright right?” James had been pushing his way through the crowds for about five minutes calling my name before we noticed each other. He was out of breath, and, as I’d expected, nearly freaking out.

“Yeah, you know, I used to think I was crazy, but I’m starting to wonder if there’s anyone who’s not.” I said, watching one of the junior newsmen trying to connect the attack on the police station to the work of residual aliens. I mean, sure he was actually right that there’d been an alien in the building a half hour before it was destroyed but I was pretty sure Agent Haffrun hadn’t had anything to do with it and she certainly hadn’t done it to strike a blow against the Neighborhood Techno-Watch program that was under consideration for funding in Congress.

“What?”, James asked, happy to find me safe, but annoyed that he’d been afraid for nothing.

“Sorry, just been listening to the news guys too long. Umm, yeah, I’m fine. I was out here waiting for you when the fire started.” I wasn’t exactly lying, not as far as the physical world was concerned anymore. I still felt bad not telling him the “real” truth, but not so much that I wanted to even begin explaining what had happened.

“Damn. You have no idea. I heard there was a fire at the police station and…”

“And you figured I’d gone on a pyromaniac spree?” I laughed. It felt good to have him around. It felt good to laugh too since the alternative was to break down in tears at how afraid I’d been that I’d never see my family again.

“Yeah, exactly.” he said. My laughter was infectious and let him relax too. When he found me he could see that nothing was wrong, hearing me laugh helped him believe it.

We drove home and were getting out of the car when it finally occurred to me to ask what had taken him so long. My chat with Pen had taken a lot longer in real world time than I’d thought, so it hadn’t occurred to me just how much time it had taken him to get the car.

“Oh, uh, I was talking with the cops for a bit, and they had to finish checking out the car.” he replied just a little too smoothly. He’d been practicing that answer.

Meta-awareness told me that the car had been ready when they got there. James had driven in after the Court was gone so there hadn’t been much to check for. I wanted to press him on the issue but I couldn’t imagine how without revealing a lot more about my own secrets than I wanted to.

Burying away both my own secrets and my desire to know what James’ were, I opened our front door and stepped inside. I felt exhaustion hit me as I did, followed by a profound sense of relief.

I’d made it.

I was home.

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